Everton v Liverpool
Ten-man Everton eventually succumbed to defeat in the 216th Merseyside derby as Jack Rodwell’s first-half red card left them facing what proved an insurmountable challenge.
Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez scored the goals – and Tim Howard saved a Dirk Kuyt penalty – but the name on the lips of every home fan was that of referee Martin Atkinson following his decision to dismiss Rodwell midway through the first half.
The Yorkshire referee had sent off 14 players since the start of last season going into the game – more than any other top flight official – and he added number 15 to that count as he gave the Everton midfielder his marching orders.
Most observers felt the challenge was scarcely deserving of sanction – let alone a red card.
It spoiled the game as a contest and gave the Blues little or no chance against their rivals.
Both subsequent goals came in the second half as the hosts eventually wilted – their numerical disadvantage taking its toll in the latter stages.
Rodwell had been excellent up to his departure and will come back stronger from this latest setback.
And so will the Blues, who can take solace from the fact that a refereeing decision was ultimately the biggest factor in transforming the complexion of the game.
The team news for the hosts centred around the fitness of Tim Cahill with the Aussie – so often a thorn in Liverpool’s side – recovering from a bruised shin inflicted by Vincent Kompany’s studs at Manchester City last week.
But perhaps even more inspiring for Everton supporters was the presence of Louis Saha on the teamsheet, the former France international starting his first league game of the season.
Tony Hibbert also kept his place at right back and, in drawing a blank again, equalled Brian Labone’s Club record of 278 first-team matches without a goal – not that he will care one jot.
He’s more interested in slide tackles, blocks and the grimy side of the game. Here it took him less than a minute to weigh in with his first lusty challenge.
Rodwell quickly trumped that with an adrenaline-soaked cruncher to win the ball from Lucas and that set the tone for a bustling start from the home side.
It was the sort of clean, hard and committed tackle that makes a derby match but more importantly - it was fair.
Yet midway through the half the midfielder was dismissed for a similar challenge as referee Atkinson made a decision that was greeted by universal condemnation from the Goodison faithful.
Rodwell slid in to win the ball from Luis Suarez – right in front of Atkinson and the official left the Everton players and fans aghast by reaching for red.
Replays in the press box revealed the midfielder won the ball with his sliding challenge and understandably Rodwell was devastated as he was unjustly asked to leave the field.
By that point the teams had enjoyed a decent chance apiece.
The first fell to the visitors as Phil Jagielka’s error let in Kuyt down the left. The Dutchman crossed and Suarez really should have tucked away a header at the back stick after peeling off Leighton Baines.
Howard promptly propelled play back up the other end and some classy interplay involving Saha and Rodwell released Coleman and he crossed for Cahill to head powerfully at goal – Reina’s fingertips denying him an opener.
Soon Atkinson’s intervention knocked the Blues out of their stride. Osman filled the gap in the middle and Cahill dropped to the left side.
Survival mode kicked in as the Blues tried to regroup, but if Atkinson already hadn’t done enough to stoke the ire of the home support he promptly irked them further by awarding the visitors a penalty.
Jagielka was the culprit as he tried to beat Suarez to the ball and instead took out the Uruguayan.
But Kuyt, previously the scourge of Everton from the spot, was thwarted by Howard as the USA keeper produced an outstanding save low down to his left.
Charlie Adam then cracked a 25-yarder off the underside of the crossbar as the home goal continued to live a charmed life. The Blues reached half-time all square and they had done well to do so.
Little changed after the break as the numerical disparity continued to manipulate the pattern of the match.
And once Saha had fired a rare effort wide at one end, he found himself clearing an Andy Carroll header off the line at the other.
That feat was quickly matched by Jagielka before Howard made another great save to rescue his side.
The left flank had been a problem since the dismissal and Royston Drenthe arrived for Coleman as Moyes shuffled his diminished pack.
Saha then reminded everyone of his threat by sending a ferocious long-range effort inches wide with Reina floundering.
It was an isolated foray forward and soon the pressure told.
Firstly, Jose Enrique and substitute Craig Bellamy combined to put it on a plate for Carroll.
The second soon followed as Sylvain Distin failed to clear his lines and Suarez made the most of the error to slot past Howard.
The final whistle was greeted by a chorus from the home fans as they tried to lift their side after a hurtful but luckless defeat.